Illinois football is going bowling

Jacob Vanzuiden, Courier Staff

It’s been a long and mostly painful ride for head coach Lovie Smith and his Fighting Illini since taking over the job in 2016, but after three straight seasons of mediocrity, his complete reconstruction of the University of Illinois’ football program is finally paying off.

It’s been a memorable 2019 season – one that once looked like another dreadful campaign sitting at 2-4 on Oct. 12. Since then, their success has been nothing short of magical. It all began in their seventh game of the year, where Smith’s squad stunned No. 6 Wisconsin with a game-winning field goal as time expired. This would prove to be the turning point of their season.

Since then, Illinois has rattled off three straight victories, taking out Big Ten opponents Purdue and Rutgers in blowout fashion before this past weekend’s contest against Michigan State. This showdown against the Spartans would test their resilience and grit like no other, heading into the game as the 13.5-point road underdogs.

The start of the game wasn’t ideal for the Illini, as they fell behind quickly, trailing Mark Dantonio’s team 28-3 late in the second quarter. Trying to muster any sort of offensive points as the clock struck zero on Illinois’ final play of the half, senior gunslinger Brandon Peters connected with junior wideout Josh Imatorbhebhe on a 46-yard prayer for a touchdown. Michigan State came out of the break and managed a field goal, once again extending their lead to 21 points. From here on out, it was all Illinois.

After the Illini cut the deficit to just one score, still trailing 24-31, Spartans’ quarterback Brian Lewerke was intercepted by sophomore free safety Sydney Brown and it was taken to the house. Then U of I went on to miss the extra point, something Michigan State would capitalize on, taking their next possession for a field goal. Now down four points late in the fourth, it was touchdown or nothing for the Illini.

On the final drive of the game, they found themselves in a prime spot to steal this win, lining up for first-and-goal on MSU’s one-yard-line with just under a minute left. It came down to the wire after several failed attempts to punch it in. However, with five seconds remaining on the clock, Peters found sophomore tight end Daniel Barker wide open in the back of the end-zone to cap off the largest comeback victory in program history, shocking the Spartans in East Lansing. Maybe more impressively, they did this while missing prized starting linebacker, junior Jake Hansen, a player in the running for college football’s Dick Butkus Award this season.

After a historic month of football (4-0), the Illini are now 6-4 on the year and are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014 – a fitting narrative to an exceptional season thus far. After the game, Smith acknowledged just how huge this victory was.

“This was, of course, the biggest win that we’ve had,” said Smith. “As we went into this week, we talked about this being the biggest game we’ll have played since we’ve been here [Smith and his coaching staff]. So definitely this is our biggest win, and the way we won the game – that was a tough duty. We’ll remember this one.”

At the end of the third quarter, ESPN’s win probability calculator gave Michigan State a 99.6 percent chance to win. This didn’t deter Illinois, as they rightfully earned their title of “Fighting” Illini in this one. When speaking about building this type of character for his team – one that doesn’t quit when their backs are against the wall – Smith was quick to give all the credit to his players, not just himself, in the post-game press conference.

“You just don’t build it [character]. It’s been a long time of building this football team and how we want to portray ourselves outward, and just who we want to be.” Smith continued, “It’s always about character and what you do and what you say when no one is looking. It’s a special group. These guys have been through an awful lot, and a lot of them have stayed [at the University of Illinois]. I think that some people just deserve to win, and we’ve got a bunch of guys that deserve to win.”

Illinois’ recent dominance has now put them in contention for the Big Ten West title, trailing Wisconsin by just half a game for the second-place spot. The team has two regular-season games left, their next being on Nov. 23 against at Iowa (6-3) before returning home for one final hoorah against Northwestern (1-8). Each of these games are unquestionably winnable for this white-hot team, but regardless of their finish, one thing remains imminent. The Illini are going bowling – and that’s a remarkable feat in and of itself.